When smart devices are actually a bit dumb

Charlotte Hillenbrand
Charlotte Hillenbrand

Serendipity (and a poorly communicated change to the SXSWi programme) dropped me into an intriguing session entitled "Our devices: how smart is too smart?" presented by Genevieve Bell from Intel (referred to here as 'Intel's Secret Weapon').

My sketchnotes from the session

In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king. In the future of connected TV, the bloke holding the remote... controls the social conversation. This was the point at which I stumbled into an interesting talk which drew neat parallels between smartphones, cars and handbags (all are equally piled full of junk we carry around but don't habitually use).

As an ethnographer, Bell has a knack for telling interesting stories about technology, regional variation and how we flex it to suit our particular needs.

For example, we are so used to the presence of wifi everywhere we go that we probably don't give much thought to the physical impact its provision has on our surroundings. Did you know that when US telcos attempted to roll out wireless across that glorious land, they were initially thwarted by churches who'd tied their steeple colours to the TV mast (literally) a few decades earlier and weren't about to give up a much-needed revenue stream without a little compensation and new business model.

Bell told another story of how Maoris stood up to the New Zealand government's intent to build wifi infrastructure over sacred land, stating that they consider clouds to be the breath of their gods and as such inviolable. Unless the NZ government could guarantee a cloudless environment (we're talking precipitation, not computing) for their wifi networks, the Maoris could not allow the infrastructure to be established. Unsurprisingly, this is still being disputed in the courts today but at least won Maoris a temporary % ownership of all NZ wifi revenues.

Ultimately, technology is getting smarter and smarter, but it can only become truly smart if it starts to work within the sensitivities and nuance of our daily lives. Just as we don't want our connected TV to necessarily shout about the rubbish sit-coms we watch, we might want to keep our precise location unbroadcast at certain times (a cry that I heard in pretty much every talk that mentioned geolocation services). Effectively, we want our devices to be as smart as a human mind and to know when to lie. We don't want a device that will dumbly broadcast our activity, no matter what.

My default position is to withhold certain information from nosey sites and curious devices so that I can retain some control over what's broadcast about me. Whether I'll trust a device once it's smart enough to lie for me depends. To be as wily as a human brain is going to take some programming.

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